Still Thinking about the Atonement | The BioLogos Forum

(system) #1

Over the last several weeks we sponsored reflections by several theologians on the atonement. I found Joseph Bankard’s questions about forgiveness to be provocative. Celia Deane-Drummond’s reflection on natural evil and the necessary expansion of the scope of atonement to animals was illuminating. And I was particularly struck by George Murphy’s explanation of how “sin is not, first of all, doing bad things but failure to trust in God”; any theory of atonement, then, must show how Christ’s life, death, and resurrection make it possible for us to trust in God. I appreciated John Hammett’s work to situate the substitutionary theory of the atonement within these confines, and it got me thinking more about the substitution view. I’ll work back to that eventually.

One of the most common criticisms of evolutionary science that we hear at BioLogos actually has nothing to do with science. Many of our critics claim that if Christians accept evolution, then they have to get rid of Adam and Eve, and if they do that there is no original sin, and if there’s no original sin then there is no point in Christ dying on the cross -- one point slides right to the next. One way to respond to this is with the joke, “Once you accept one slippery slope argument, you have to accept them all!” Jokes aside, labeling something a “slippery slope” doesn’t demonstrate that it really is one. But of course we need to acknowledge the real concerns expressed in this argument.

There is no question that there are serious Christian thinkers who dig in their heels and stop at each of the points on the purported slope: some accept evolution but affirm a historical Adam and Eve; some reject a historical Adam and Eve but affirm the doctrine of original sin; and some reject the doctrine of original sin but don’t think that means Christ’s death is unnecessary. Others, though, argue that logic requires each point to follow from the next, citing biblical texts in support, in a slippery continuous slope. I’d suggest, however, that their theological convictions are not driven primarily by straight exegesis of the text, but by the positions they bring to the text, resulting in elaborations of Scripture. That doesn’t mean that such theological positions are wrong, merely that those positions are not necessitated by the text itself. That is to say, there may be other ways of interpreting Scripture without doing disservice to it. And too often interpretations are taken to be the substance of Scripture itself.

For example, Young Earth Creationists claim evolution is invalidated because there could not have been any death before the Fall. They appeal to Romans 5:12 which says that death entered the world because of sin, and they take that to mean (here’s the elaboration) that no animals could have died before Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden. Of course the Bible doesn’t say it like that, and I’d even point out that it seems more consistent with the passage to see Paul referring to humanity alone in that passage. But the YEC interpretation of that verse has become the lens through which many people read other passages and ultimately through which they view the natural world.

Another of those lenses is the substitutionary theory of the atonement, which seems to be the dominant view among more conservative Christians today. I’d suggest this interpretation of the doctrine of the atonement plays a crucial role as the “grease” in the slippery slope argument I gave. Many people seem to feel that Adam and Eve, original sin, and Christ’s death are linked together by the theological claim that Christ’s death is necessary to appease God’s wrath against us for the original sin we inherited from Adam and Eve. However, I claimed in my introduction to the series that there has not been just one accepted theory of the atonement through church history. The substitutionary view was developed primarily by Anselm in the eleventh century. The church operated for 1000 years without this particular doctrine that is now thought to be so crucial! Of course its late development doesn’t make it wrong—the church survived a few centuries without a doctrine of the Trinity, which most take as a test of orthodoxy—but it should at least cause us to question whether it is essential. It may be that there are other ways of reading Scripture faithfully.

Despite my misgivings, I confess that, like Hammett, I do see substitution reflected in Scripture. The Jewish culture in which Christianity was born was saturated with the necessity of sacrifice, and it seems obvious to me that Christ would be seen as the ultimate sacrifice in that environment. And though substitution may be assumed in the slippery slope argument, I don’t think the science of evolution causes any particular problem for this view.

But I also see other images of atonement (Hammett acknowledges this too). That makes me wonder whether these aren’t meant to be literal descriptions but rather suggestive metaphors. A few weeks ago on this blog, James K.A. Smith said that we find in Scripture multiple word pictures or metaphors for the atonement because “it is a mysterious work of grace that we cannot possibly probe… The multiple theories or models of the atonement are not different views on whether the cross accomplishes the forgiveness of sins but how.” It’s as though the biblical writers were trying to come to grips with the unexpected event of Christ’s death and fit it into the broader narrative of God’s saving his people. One would say (under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit), “here’s a way we might think about this” and another would offer a different way of thinking about it. This multiplicity of views should certainly cause us to reflect further and do our best to give coherent descriptions of this foundational theological doctrine. But more than that it should cause us to fall on our knees and worship God--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit--for creating, redeeming, and empowering us.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit:

as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at


Hi @jstump,

I think the problem comes in when we interpret the Atonement as a way of fulfilling retributive justice. I suspect this was what Reformation theology taught. I do not think this is what Scripture taught. The animal sacrifice was not being punished instead of the sinner. It was absorbing and removing the sin, and cleansing the Temple of the defilement of sin with its innocent life, which was in the blood. Likewise, Jesus was made sin, not to be punished to satisfy retributive justice, but to remove sin from us, and cleanse us with his righteous life, which is in his blood. By having faith in and being baptized into Jesus, we are united with him in his death, which puts to death our sinful natures, so that we can rise with him in his new life. When God looks at us, he sees us in his Son, and is satisfied (propitiated).

If animal pain and suffering is evil, as many of us think, then it also must be redeemed. If so, we should see the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus as redeeming not just humanity, but all of creation.

(James Stump) #5

Thanks for your thoughts Bilbo. I think what you say makes sense from the perspective of the biblical authors. The sacrifice and blood language makes perfect sense in their context (as I suggested in my post). But now we take the “life in the blood” to be a symbol, right? If we were to examine Christ’s blood, I doubt that we’d find any indicators that it contained “righteous life” as opposed to the sinful life in our blood. So @jabankard’s questions about why God couldn’t just forgive become more acute. Is God bound by some higher law?? And though I agree with you about the imputation of righteousness, I’m part of the Christian tradition that emphasizes imparting of righteousness too. Thus Murphy’s point about needing an atonement theory that acknowledges the change brought about in me (my state), and not just a change in my standing before the judge.

I wholeheartedly agree with your statement about the redemption of all of creation.

(Albert Leo) #6

@jstump @bilbo Predation in the animal world almost always looks cruel to human eyes and therefore is judged evil. But is it? Is it something Jesus needs to redeem and will be absent in the Kingdom of God that we look forward to? As a scientist I find that incredible. I would rather believe that my human nature makes it difficult to understand why God seems to link suffering and creativity so closely together. Job 38: "Where were you when I laid the foundations…"
Al Leo


Hi @jstump,

I don’t believe in “imputed righteousness.” We are in the Messiah , therefore God sees us in our perfected states in Messiah. I think God can “just forgive us.” I think sin is a disease that we must cleansed of by the work of the Holy Spirit in us. Therefore, God has linked his forgiveness to our taking the medicine that cures us of sin. I think that was what the metaphor of the bronze serpent was all about: Do you want to be cured of the venom from the fiery serpents? Then look at the bronze serpent. If you don’t then regardless of whether God has forgiven you, you will die.


Hi @aleo,

Is animal pain and suffering a good or evil thing in and of itself, apart from whether it has beneficial uses? Many of us would say that it is evil, in and of itself. If so, then God will provide a way for its redemption. I’m not sure why you find the idea of the absence of predation in God’s new creation incredible. Could you explain that?

(Albert Leo) #9

@Bilbo Watching a Nature program on TV and seeing the terror in the eyes of a Tommy gazelle as a lioness’ jaws are clamped on its throat, how can one not call it evil? But sadly, Malthusian law applies. In natural biomes it is often predation that keeps the various species in balance. When the wolves in Yellowstone were eliminated, the once healthy population of elk, while increasing in numbers, became more sickly, and in the process, overgrazed the food source of other herbivores. All predators seek out the easiest prey, and by eliminating the weak and sickly, do the herd a ‘favor.’ How did the Tommy gazelle become so nimble and such a paragon of grace that it loves to ‘pronk’ in sight of its predators? Because its ‘blood line’ included only those who escaped predators and lived to reproduce. We humans can say that is an evil way to create novelty and capability, but evidently God does not think so.
Al Leo

(David Schwartz) #10

Though I’m probably not going to add more to the issue of sin, Justice and judgment than what I posted previously, I do think that the Bible very clearly states that satisfaction for sin is the punishment that we merit by our sinful works. It is not that God is spiteful but that sin requires consequence. If you don’t think so, go run over a child with a car or rob a bank. If you don’t think our sin is that bad, read the sermon on the mount.

What I did want to add to the conversation is that the sacrificial system nly pointed to Christ as the ultimate and real substitute. The animals no more took away sin than the pillar of cloud or fire. It was faith in the One to come who would completely remove our sin and pay the satisfaction of our sin (though they didn’t recognize it yet because they were on the other side of history) that justified just as we look back at what He did and trust what He did for us. Grace saved them through faith just as it does now us.


Hi @aleo,

Yes, I understand the usefulness for predation in the present creation. What I don’t understand is that you would find it incredible that there would be no predation in the new creation. Could you explain that?

(Albert Leo) #12

@Bilbo @Christie
It is actually worthwhile trying to explain why evil (i.e. pain & suffering) exists in the animal world, because then we humans can take a more detached view of it. Any ‘evil’ in animal lives cannot be punishment for sin; their God-given instinct directs their lives. The only answer that comes close to making sense is that God permits ‘evil’ so that good may spring from it. Or, expressed in a different way, some of what we call ‘evil’ is an aspect of ‘creativity’ and can have good results.

Presenty I am reading “The God I Don’t Understand” by Christopher Wright. Like so many theologians, his ‘understanding problem’ is stated in the first chapter, ‘The Mystery of Evil’. In it he states: “the final truth is that evil does not make sense” (emphasis his) . Should we not look at our definition of terms to see if the difficulty lies there? Using a human concept of ‘perfect’, we say that a perfect God must have meant his Creation to be perfect, but somehow evil crept in. God started creating with the Cosmosphere. We acknowledge that in the Cosmosphere stars are ‘born’ and ‘die’, some in cataclysms that seed the future with atoms suitable for Life. Only through our intelligence can we see that the star’s ‘death’ was creative. I like to think that, in the Biosphere, He designed evolution to produce a variety of life forms that would be tested by a variety of environments with the results we see today: an amazing beauty and complexity that is awesome to behold. But pain and suffering and death are all a part of that creation process. Sometimes they may look evil to the individual life form experiencing them, but God, who has the final results in mind, sees it as a process wherein all life is returning to its source, Omega, as Teilhard phrased it.
Al Leo

(Albert Leo) #13

@Bilbo I envision “the new creation” as the life on this earth when (or if) humans can reach their full potential that Christ-like love would produce. The life I lead today would seem like a ‘new creation’ to someone struggling to stay alive during the Black Death plague in mediaeval Europe. If humans could advance morality as rapidly as they are advancing science & engineering, the future 1,000 yrs from now might look Eden-like, even if life still ended in death, as long as human suffering were much reduced. Predation would still be part of it, tho. But, like Teilhard, I do not think that is the ultimate destination for humanity. Ultimately we, along with all life, are destined to return to our Source,
Al Leo


Hi @aleo,

Okay, so you have a different view of what the “new creation” will be from most evangelicals.

(Lonnie E Schubert) #15

Jesus didn’t die for us because he had to. Jesus died for us because we understand that no greater love hath any man than he lay down his life for his friend.

Jesus died for us because he wanted us to understand that of our divine creator. He wanted us to know the truth spoken by the prophet Micah was spoken in love, that we know what is good because God has shown us, and that it is in His Love that he requires us to live justly, love mercy, and walk humbly before Him.

(Albert Leo) #16

@Bilbo Yes, I suppose you are right–in Justin Topp’s terminology ( 7/29 blog), we have different ‘Research Programs’. Since joining in the BioLogos discussions,I now have a better idea of, and more respect for, evangelical Christianity. I just hope that, in divulging my liberal Christian views, I have not become unwelcome–a skunk at a picnic, so to speak.
Al Leo


Hi @aleo,

That’s why we have two hands. One to eat with, one to hold our noses.

(Christy Hemphill) #18

I like you, Al. You’ve never ruined my picnic. :ant:
You gotta start spelling my name right so I know when you @ me though :wink:

(Christy Hemphill) #19

But there is a difference between the church operating without a formalization of a particular doctrine and the church operating without the beliefs that the doctrine formalizes. The doctrine of the full divinity of Christ wasn’t formalized until Chalcedon in 451, but that doesn’t mean the thought hadn’t really occurred to anyone before then, so maybe it wasn’t really that essential.

(Albert Leo) #20

@Christy Sorry, Christy. As you get older you find that the cingulate gyrus tends to freeze, holding on to old memories and blocking some new ones. I have a close relative that spells her name ending with ‘i.e.’. Spelled either way, it indicates parents who hope their child will lead a Christ-like life. Pretty lucky kids, I would say.
Al Leo

(Albert Leo) #21

@Bilbo @Christy
Bilbo, in a reply to a previous blog, you sated:
"By coming to faith in Jesus, we are united with him in his death to sin. Our sinful human human natures have been crucified and buried with him. We now have new life in Jesus’ resurrected life. We are no longer in the old Adam of sin and death, but in the new Adam of righteousness and life."
In language much better suited to instruct the majority of Christians, I believe your quote sends the same message as what I have proposed from the science perspective:
"In the course of creating Life on earth via evolution, God saw it was good, but it still did not reflect certain of His qualities–altruism, compassion, love–that He wanted expressed. Selfish genes, driven to be expressed in the following generation, got in the way. Programming the brains of a promising primate, Homo sapiens, to act as Mind and to distinguish between right an wrong, He established a Covenant, a promise, that they could bring these desirable traits to earthly life by rising above their animal instincts (selfish genes). When they failed to live up to this promise, He sent Christ into the world–truly a Man with human genes, but with the will to avoid sin and teach others to follow him. By our faith in Jesus we are united with him in death to sin.

Are these not two ways of conveying the same message?
Al Leo

(system) #22

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